Consider This | Bastardizing Westminster, pt. 1
“When men of intelligence upend, mangle or degrade treasured norms, it demonstrates how precipitous is a country’s decline.” – Front Porch, by Simon, September 17, 2015
• Author’s note: We have noticed, during the budget debate in the House of Assembly these past few weeks, that certain members of Parliament from the governing FNM took the opportunity, while making their budget contributions, to castigate their own party, something that is traditionally out of place in the Westminster system. We thought, therefore, it would be instructive for both Bahamians and parliamentarians for us to republish our two columns on the Westminster system, the first one this week and the second on July 8, so that we can all be aware of the system upon which our Parliament should be based.
There is a proverb that is frequently attributed to the Chinese which states: “May you live in interesting times.” While many persons invoking this adage purport that this is a blessing, considerable literature suggests that it is, in fact, a curse whose real meaning is: “May you experience much disorder and trouble in your life.” Whether it is a blessing or a curse, we most certainly are living in interesting times – often experiencing considerable disorder and trouble in our lives and in society.
One of the areas where a nation should expect there to be order is the system of government it has adopted. However, there are several developments over the past few years that cause us to wonder just how much do we really understand the system of government that we have adopted, namely the parliamentary democracy patterned after the British Westminster system.
There was a time when the sun never set on the British Empire and many former colonies, which now form the British Commonwealth of Nations; 53 in total, have adopted the fundamental tenets of the Westminster system.
Amid chronic examples of what represent demonstrable breaches of that system of government – from charges of conflicts of interest by elected officials, collective responsibility and tenure of office – we would like to Consider This… In The Bahamas, are we guilty of bastardizing the Westminster system of government that we claim to have adopted?
The Westminster system
The Westminster system of government derives its name from the Palace of Westminster where the British Parliament is situated. Before proceeding, let’s clarify an annoyingly common mistake about its pronunciation. The word is West-min-ster, not West-min-I-ster.
The democratic parliamentary system of government includes conventions, practices and precedents regarding the operation of the legislative and executive branches of government. We adopted our system, as did many former British colonies, upon their attainment of political independence, from Britain. Most of the English-speaking Caribbean countries adopted the Westminster system with the monarch as the de facto head of state. However, several Caribbean countries, including Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago, have chosen to become a republic with a presidential form of government.
Prominent features of the Westminster system
According to authoritative sources, including Wikipedia, the Westminster system includes the following:
• A sovereign or head of state who is the nominal or legal and constitutional holder of executive power, and holds numerous reserve powers, but whose daily duties mainly consist of performing ceremonial functions. Examples include Queen Elizabeth II, the governor general in independent Commonwealth countries, or the presidents of many countries… that have adopted the republican form of government;
• A head of government (or head of the executive), known as the prime minister (PM), premier or first minister. While the head of government is appointed by the head of state, the constitutional convention is that the person appointed must be supported by the majority of elected members of Parliament;
• A de facto executive branch usually made up of members of the legislature with the senior members of the executive in a Cabinet led by the head of government; such members execute executive authority on behalf of the nominal or theoretical executive authority;
• An independent civil service which advises on, and implements, decisions of those ministers. Civil servants are permanent and can normally expect merit-based selection processes and continuity of employment when governments change;
• Parliamentary opposition (a multi-party system);
• A legislature, often bicameral, in which at least one house is elected, although unicameral systems also exist. Legislative members are usually elected by district in first-past-the-post elections; a lower house of Parliament with an ability to dismiss a government by withholding (or blocking) supply (rejecting a budget), passing a motion of no confidence or defeating a confidence motion. The Westminster system enables a government to be defeated, or forced into a general election, independently of a new government being chosen;
• A Parliament which can be dissolved, and elections called at any time;
• Parliamentary privilege, which allows the legislature to discuss any issue deemed by itself to be relevant, without fear of consequences stemming from defamatory statements or records thereof;
• Minutes of meetings, often known as Hansard, including an ability for the legislature to strike discussion from these minutes.
Under the Westminster system, the Cabinet is collectively responsible for government policies, its decisions are made by consensus and it is extremely rare for a vote to be taken in Cabinet meetings.
Also, under this system, all ministers must publicly support the policies of the government regardless of any private reservations. If their conscience does not allow them to support the government’s decisions, they are compelled to do the honorable thing and resign from the Cabinet.
Deviating from the Westminster system in The Bahamas
In The Bahamas, we have witnessed many instances that are not at all consistent with the Westminster system we profess to follow.
For example, over the past few years, we have seen at least one minister publicly announce his opposition to a government bill which had been decided by the Cabinet in which he sits. Under the Westminster system, because of his public opposition to the bill, he should have resigned from the Cabinet. In the absence of such resignation, he should have been invited to do so by the prime minister, with the resulting consequences should he fail to accept such an invitation. However, that minister did not resign from the Cabinet nor was he asked for his resignation by the prime minister. That neither action followed such a public pronouncement is a perversion of the Westminster system and flies in the face of the conventions that we claim to follow.
On a completely different matter, we have observed that some members of Parliament have verbally attacked members of the public during parliamentary proceedings. This is another breach of the Westminster system. While parliamentarians enjoy privilege for the things that they utter in Parliament, such verbal attacks on private persons are patently unfair because the persons so attacked do not have an equal platform from which to answer the attack and have no corresponding privilege to protect the latter should they publicly respond to the attack.
Finally, one of the most egregious and pervasive violations of the Westminster system is the verbatim and habitual reading of speeches by parliamentarians during House debates. This is also a perversion of the system where contributions by members of Parliament are supposed to be debated, aided only using notes, sometimes copious, but notes, nevertheless. However, without a fully written contribution, most of the members of the House of Assembly would be completely lost as to where to begin. This practice diminishes and dumbs down the level of true debate we should expect from our representatives.
Some of these distortions of the Westminster system arise from ignorance on the part of some of our politicians. Because there is no period of apprenticeship for most of our parliamentarians, so many of them simply do not understand how the system works.
It also accentuates the need for both the speaker and the deputy speaker of the House of Assembly to be more experienced about parliamentary procedures, including a much deeper understanding of the Westminster system. Much of this comes from many years of experience as a parliamentarian.
It has become patently perceptible that most of our members of Parliament must undergo a deep immersion course in parliamentary procedure and the Westminster system of government if they are going to employ the art of governance within the framework that has been extant in The Bahamas for nearly 300 years and has served the nation for the past 46 years since independence. To do otherwise is to perpetuate a perversion of the Westminster system and potentially paralyze the optimal operation of our government, hindering our future development and success as a nation.
In part two of this series, we will examine recent examples of how our elected representatives are guilty of bastardizing the Westminster system.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.